With our two night stop over in Mirissa soon gone we had to reluctantly move on. We could easily have spent another couple of evenings ( the original plan had been seven) on the beach there, fabulous seafood etc but I had already booked and paid for via "booking .com" 4 nights at our next destination.
The Saraii Village is a bit different and I was looking for something a bit more unique than your bog standard package tour hotel.
This was it, a mud hut !
Claire saw the Trip Advisor reports before I booked and she was happy to give it a go, she drew the line at a tree house though and with her fear of heights I can't blame her. The home made ladders were more Robinson Crusoe than B&Q.
Our room was spartan but very clean and had both electric lights and a fan.
A bit open to the elements we did share with a pair of roosting Red Vented Bulbuls but that's all as far as I'm aware !
The downside was we had our own bathroom but it was a walk outside to another hut. The surrounding area was farmland so a possibility for some birding for me but little for Claire as they didn't have pools, sunbeds and the like. It was however well placed for both Bundala and Yala NP's both not to be missed as far as my agenda was concerned.A phone call enquiry and within 15 minutes tour operator, jeep and driver were on the premises to sell me the deal for the next day, a full day's safari to Yala for R18,000 which is currently about £85.
Duly collected and on time, off we went at 6.00am but soon it turned out the driver had instructions to take us to the bosses house to collect packed lunches, a ruse for trying to get us to visit his luxury tented accommodation. We declined offers of on the way and on the way back too. He was a trier I have to admit. We thought we had seen the last of him but on continuing our journey we were stopped at a police roadblock for a licence check and our driver had to phone the boss to deliver his by motorbike as he'd left it in another vehicle. The 30 minute delay didn't worry me too much, by 7.00am it was just getting light enough for decent photography and I was delighted to find almost the very first bird we spotted was a lifer, the Greater Thick-knee
Every pool seemed to have a resident Crocodile
but with water abundant following the rainy season wildlife would probably be well dispersed throughout the park.
There were lots of Wild Boar to be seen
as well as Spotted Deer
although we only saw a couple of Sambar deer
Plenty of food for the park's number one attraction then....Leopard ! Sri Lanka has one of the highest concentrations of Leopard in the world and Yala is considered the best place to see them. Most jeeps are on the lookout for this prime sighting, anything else spotted is fairly secondary to most visitors but not to me. I had already had a close up encounter with a Leopard in Wilpattu NP on our visit in March so I wouldn't be too disappointed if we failed this time. I was interested in a bigger diversity of photographic subjects. Birdwise there wasn't a lot in the way of quantity
A Brown Shrike or two early on
The shy White Breasted Waterhen caught out in the open for a change
Lots of Lesser Whistling Duck on the wetland areas ( seen here with the ubiquitous Pond Hero )
but generally speaking there wasn't a great diversity. By far the most numeric were the Bee-eaters. Green,Blue Tailed and to my personal delight, the Chestnut headed Bee-eater. I hadn't previously managed a half decent image so I was delighted with these.
Not quite so much these though ! The Paradise Flycatcher is quite shy and flighty, constantly moving from perch to perch.
On this tour of Sri Lanka I saw more than all my previous trips abroad put together but they still proved to be beyond my skills to capture the image I was after. They are a small bird with a huge tail so framing the shot is hard, more so when they usually appear in dense bushes !
One bird that didn't prove so difficult was this Changeable Hawk Eagle. Sat in a branch not twenty feet away,
I was able to snap away for quite sometime while I tried to get an interesting shot.
I was happy to have added another lifer to my trip list . The bird was going nowhere but we headed down to the beach area for a couple of hours break as the time was rapidly approaching midday and the sun was at it's hottest.
A refreshing sea breeze helped keep the temperature down and , with the surrounding trees it was a pleasant place to rest up.
It was also the place the Tsunami had struck on Boxing Day, 2004. The cement base was all that was left of a home which had been washed away. A simple memorial stone to mark the spot where 15 tourists were confirmed dead along with 29 local visitors. Not their lucky day, they must have been terrified to suddenly see this giant wave appear heading straight down on them.
Today, all was calm, the weather stunning.There was only one other jeep parked up today, those on the half day tours had left the park.
A White Bellied Sea Eagle flew in from a fruitless hunt out at sea.
and took up residence in a nearby tree.
My sharp eyed guide spotted what he identified as a Common Kestrel in an adjoining tree too,
A couple of hours soon passed and we were on our way again.We stopped by a small pond to look at something, I forget what, when suddenly, not 50 feet away, one by one a family of Elephant slipped out of the undergrowth and lined up for a drink.
An intimate moment shared before they once more slipped back in to the bushes totally silently despite their huge bulk.
The one HUGE advantage of being on a full day safari is that you are in the park before the second wave of visitors arrive. When the tip off arrived from the only other jeep that a Leopard had been found we were in second spot and a prime position. The Leopard was lying in shade, grooming and napping when suddenly a Peacock appeared and was heading straight towards the Leopard.
It's a weird sensation. The Peacock sensed all wasn't well, the Leopard, not 60 feet away was suddenly aware to the opportunity for a favourite meal. It prepared itself to launch an attack.
A dark thought about capturing the action entered my head, was I actually hoping to witness it ? Guilt and anticipation all at once. A hasty lens swop, what would be would be.
As it happened, the peacock decided not was all as it should be and headed off in the opposite direction. The Leopard decided to move, if lunch wasn't coming to her, might as well go and look for it.
By now the afternoon jeeps had started arriving. As the Leopard moved there was a mad rush of manoeuvring jeep trying to jockey for a better view. We were fortunate, we had a grandstand lookout. The Leopard seemed unconcerned but I thought it all very unseemly and not my idea of wildlife watching at all.
Still I had my shot which is more than most I imagine, they would have been lucky to catch even a glimpse.
With the Leopard gone, all the vehicles dispersed and we set off to look for more.
Trees full of Malabar Pied Hornbill were offering reasonable photo's
and whilst watching a Painted Stork in a pool I suddenly spotted two Jackal very close by.
Driving on we rounded a corner and saw a Blue Faced Malkoha right out in the open and very close. A lifer for me ,I would have loved a photograph but the driver missed the bird and the vehicle ploughed on flushing it in the process.Ah well.
All of a sudden, the grapevine was alive with news of the sighting of a Sloth Bear. We arrived to total chaos.A narrow bridge, a narrow raised road, countless jeeps going in opposite directions all arriving at once. By sheer luck and anticipation the Bear wandered into view and we had probably the best viewing place of all the vans. Still fairly distant and obscured by nearer bushes I was able to manage something of a record of this, another lifer for me.
The jockeying for position was getting worse, the minute anyone moved someone else tried to squeeze in to the vacant space. We told our guys we were happy to leave it all behind and headed off leaving those behind to fight for our vacated space. Not my idea of fun really.
The light was starting to drop, our tour was nearly over. A couple of stops for shots, mainly displaying Peacock and the day was over. I think we left the park at 5.30.
Would I return to Yala ? I'm not sure to be honest, without a doubt a full day trip is a must if you do entertain the idea but there are other parks to consider although not all home Leopard. It hadn't been the best of days for numeric sightings but we had still done well. The bunfight did take the edge of proceedings though.
On day two of our stay in the mud hut at Weerawila I decided we would take a break from wildlife watching and headed to the beach.
I did insist on stopping along the way to grab some shots of both Black Headed Ibis
and Open Billed Stork just in case they were not to be seen elsewhere.
All the rice paddies are full of Cattle Egret but the Ibis are plentiful too. The Stork to a lesser extent. Whilst stopped and using the van as a hide a White Throated Kingfisher landed on the wires right in front of me. They had proven to be very shy up to this point !
On to the coast and ironically we found the superb Kirinda Beach Resort that had we known about we would definitely have booked in preference to the Saraii Village. Superbly appointed and furnished beach bungalow/huts, private beach, etc,etc.Equally well placed for both Yala and Bundala and the irony is I could have left Claire there quite happily as they had a pool and sun beds. Instead I had opted to book us both a half day jeep trip to Bundala as I thought a full day was pushing it for Claire. Ah well, we'll know if there is a next time.
I had also decided to leave out mud hut a day early , immediately after our half day tour to Bundala. The stay had been different, the room clean and comfortable but with nowhere for Claire to lounge whilst I went off it wasn't fair on her. However, what really was the decider was the bathroom
The shower was bearable although only a pipe delivering cold water. Stepping out of the tray in bare feet onto those sharp stones wasn't pleasant but the killer was that it was in a separate hut to our bedroom and meant getting dressed to go to the loo when nature calls in the middle of the night. It might have been basic living but it still worked out at £70 per night including a simple dinner ! Enough was enough but I don't regret going, it's was part of making your trip all the more memorable !
Another 6.00am departure saw us on our way to Bundala and by 6.45 we were in the park just as things were starting to wake up.
A pair of yawning Moongoose surveying the land from on top of a wood pile were one of our first sightings.
Quickly followed a Black Naped Hare
Bundala is more of a bird reserve than a mammal one and therefore it tends to be a lot quieter. There were about 4 vans on the morning tour and after a while they had all disappeared in different directions. Compared to the melee at Yala it was perfect bliss.
There are animals though, Spotted Deer are quite numerous, particularly with no Leopard to hunt them. Still they took no chances with humans either.
Black Faced Langur was another in large numbers too
There are even Elephant with numbers a low 20 or so. The real attraction though are the birds and I had added several new ones to my trip list within minutes and that was soon followed by my first "lifer" of the day. Jerdon's Bush Lark
First pictures of Pintail Snipe, but not keeping lists I might have seen one before.
Red Wattled and Yellow Wattled Lapwing showed well
but what followed next was truly amazing.
A smallish pond, reeds around some of the edge and it held some awesome birds. Over 7 visits to India and Sri Lanka I have managed partial sightings, the briefest of glimpses of two birds that had become something of an obsession to photograph. They were both not only in this small pond but gave some stunning views too.
A bit closer and showing well whilst on the hunt, Yellow Bittern
We sat enthralled for ages
I was hoping to witness a catch but it wasn't to be.
These two birds alone made the trip worthwhile but there was more !
Not quite the Holy Trinity of Cinnamon Bittern, but a lifer and just as good as far as I was concerned, Ruddy Breasted Crake.
Not exactly rare but seldom seen.
Great stuff !
All this within an hour or so of arriving ,could there possibly be more ?
An hour gone and for the last 20 minutes we had hardly moved, there was no need to. Birds like the Purple Gallinule hardly got any attention and yet on my last trip they were still a top target.
So too the Pheasant Tailed Jacana
and even the brief visit of a Spot Billed Pelican, a species I hadn't any decent images of, didn't distract me from the Yellow Bittern for more than a few seconds.
A Crested ( also known as Changeable) Hawk-Eagle landed in the tree above us and I didn't even bother trying for a photo, this one is one taken by Claire.
Once the Yellow Bittern had retreated back in to the reeds I was ready to move on but one last treat lay in store. A Grey Headed Fish Eagle landed in a fairly distant tree
I had never before managed an image of any sort so this was a coup for me.The trouble was when it moved it flew in to the tree directly above me and views where obscured by branches. Not too bad for a head shot though !
It didn't stay long and so we moved on a short distance. Next on the agenda were a couple of Stone Curlew or Eurasian Thick-knee as they are also known. They had been a lifer in the farmland near our mud hut the previous day but these were much closer and extremely well camouflaged .
Another stop along the track brought us to a spot where we captured images of Plain Prinia
and Black Headed Munia
as well as the now frequently seen but always gorgeous Bee-eaters
Not only Blue Tailed
but Green Bee-eater too.
Moving along to more open ground we were on the edge of a huge plant covered lagoon. Spot billed Pelican thankfully offering decent views, I would have cursed had I not got some side on images.
There were Roosting Gull Billed Terns, a fly by Caspian Tern( the only one of the trip) and hundreds of Cormorant both Little and Indian. I hardly bothered taking any photo's of them although I did take some of the Darters which were surprisingly numerous too.
Carrying on instead we came across another reasonably sized pond. In the middle, a hunting Purple Heron
but down one end and amazing assortment of Painted Stork, Great White and Intermediate Egrets, Spoonbill plus one or two others including a single Black Crowned Night Heron.
To give an indication on numbers , and size comparison :-
and that was just a small section of the hundreds of birds that were present.Aren't Spoonbills small !
Our guide asked us if we wanted to take a route through the wooded area of the park next but I told him I would prefer to return the way we had come. The pools were just too good and who knows what opportunities might present themselves.Woodland birding, especially for photography is always hard in comparison.
We returned the way we had come but stopped only briefly by the ponds, instead we made a rather speedy return to the park entrance gate and then home.It was only 10.30 am. I didn't say anything but I felt a mixture of elation and disappointment. Bundala is magical, I could and should have stayed all day, it was on my original agenda to take a full day and a half day tour there. At R12000 (£60) for the two of us for 4 hours it seemed bad value compared to the R18,000 we paid for the 11 hour trip to Yala. However, I still left happy in the knowledge I had several new species "in the can" .
Dropped off by the jeep back at the Saraii Village, our driver Ranjith was waiting to take us on the next leg of the trip.